353 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Spain’s on the same latitude as New York, so in winter the rain in Spain must mainly be a pain. I love eating Spanish food in rotten weather — all that warming olive oil and garlic and the rich, comforting flavors of great pig products and marinated Mediterranean veggies and rich shellfish. Potatoes, too — the Spaniards picked ’em up from the Incas and ran with them. Currently, Cafe Sevilla’s also bending over backward to offer another form of comfort — affordable cooking to warm us in the chill of the recession. This fall, they revised the menu to add a group of middle-size tapas. They’re smaller than entrées, but substantial enough to serve as a main dish for one, or an ample grazing plate for sharers. Bottom line: Typical food-costs for a filling, tasty meal for two can run about $25 a person (food only), with wider flavor options at that price for a foursome sharing. A foursome ordering sampler tapas platters on a half-off Wednesday night is really in the catbird seat.
I returned to Sevilla (after several years’ absence, pursuing other restaurants) to try out as many of their new dishes as possible. I was sorry to find quite a few old favorites (e.g., pinxos morunos, caracoles Catalán, empanada Barcelona) banished from the menu. The new menu has another difference: It’s pretty much all in English now. We started with a round of tropical-adventure cocktails, which cost about the same here (e.g., $8 or $9) as bottom-shelf wines by the glass at higher-end eateries. Yoda (Jim’s laid-back computer-guru and biz partner but much nicer looking than the Star Wars wise guy) tried a pomegranate mojito, tart enough to be interesting. Michelle’s passion-fruit mojito was even more puckery, and all the better for it. Jim got a shot of Mocambo, great dark rum. My caipirinha was the loser, unbearably sweet with no hint of fresh mashed limes. After the cocktails, we switched to a pitcher of white sangria, an interesting change from red, but the excellent red sangria is really much better.
Our food came quickly — perhaps too quickly, as you’ll soon learn. We started out brilliantly with a new dish of dates stuffed with Cabrales bleu cheese, wrapped in bacon, and oven-blasted with a cider-vinegar glaze. Just imagine those flavors and textures hitting your mouth all at once — soft and musky and sweet inside, crispy, salty, and tangy on the surface. Almost as good as the stuffed dates at Whisknladle, and that’s saying a mouthful.
Green (New Zealand) mussels escabeche are marinated in their shells in olive oil and lemon until they “self-cook”; they come with a not-too-spicy serrano chile salsa. The mussels, firm from their acidic bath, taste fresh, briny, and clean — rapid turnover at Sevilla keeps them so.
A diversion: Jim and Michelle were mussels demi-vierges, having eaten them rarely and doubtfully in the past. “Aren’t they usually sort of smelly?” Michelle asked. “Oh, gawd,” I said. “Wherever you ate them before, they’d obviously spent so long in the walk-in, they had time to piss all over themselves and each other.” I never once encountered stinky mussels until I moved to San Diego. Here, they’re almost endemic — I’ve met them five times in eight years, including at three high-end restaurants. Solve the problem by standing up for yourself: If they smell like sewage, insist on returning them to the kitchen. (I don’t know how the line-chefs cooking them can pass them on to customers — you can’t miss the reek.) This is one issue worth making a fuss about, because, believe me, stinky mussels will make you sick as a dog. But please, forget you read this in conjunction with Sevilla, because the mussels here are just aces!
A sampler platter of cold marinated tapas was my favorite dish of the evening. It included artichoke hearts with Spanish ham, mushrooms in balsamic vinaigrette, meaty and flavorful roasted piquillo peppers, and spicy octopus — every bite a treat. (I wish Sevilla would make the classic tapa of piquillo peppers stuffed with Spanish anchovies, once tasted, forever missed.…)
Lamb chops Madrileños offers two small, marinated, grilled rib chops served over a smoky fava-bean stew, garnished with bits of several types of Spanish sausage. The marinade is subtle but effective — even though the chops are cooked well done, they are savory, and the beans are an earthy pleasure. For a few dollars less, you can also get the beans alone (with a bit more sausage), called Fabada, from the “tapitas” menu.
Our most expensive dish ($23 for a small plateful of slices) was Jamón Ibérico, fresh-sliced gourmet ham made from a special breed of Spanish black pigs, descended from wild boars. A year ago, I tasted a tidbit of the top grade (called jamón ibérico de bellota — bellota apparently means “acorn-fed”) at the Fancy Food Show. Made from two-year-old free-range pigs living in the forest and feeding exclusively on wild acorns and roots, this exorbitant morsel was the sweetest, most intense and complex ham I’d ever sampled. Alas, turns out that there are also lower grades of the divine meat, from the same breed of pigs fed more conventionally on grain. That, evidently, is what Sevilla offers, and while it tastes very good, it’s not that much better than the far less exorbitant jamón serrano, which appears elsewhere on the menu for just $8.50 a portion. (You could create your own fabulous tapa by pulling out elements from the sampler plates, all available separately, to combine serrano ham, piquillo peppers, and Manchego cheese. Although your new combo will cost about the same as the Ibérico, it might taste more fulfilling.)
Before moving on to the dishes you probably shouldn’t order, I want to mention some of the best ones I’ve eaten here at earlier visits, assuming the restaurant hasn’t changed or cheapened its winning formulae. The lobster-and-seafood bisque is a generous, creamy bowlful topped by an airy puff-pastry crown. The server punctures the center of the crust and pours in a jigger of sherry, which lends a bright, nutty nip to the sumptuous, velvety liquid, dotted with morsels of shrimp and tender mussel-meats. The fried calamari are actually “frizzled” with paprika-laden flour (rather than the usual heavy batter). The light, crisp coating complements tender squid rounds, which stay succulent even as they cool. If you want a dip, look to the tapa of alioli (the Spanish version of aioli, with minced fresh basil and chives) and oregano-spiked tomato dip, served with your choice of French bread or (better yet) Kalamata olive loaf. For an entrée, roast pork tenderloin has fine meat in a spiced honey-port sauce, perfumed with cloves and not oversweet. Alongside are small cooked tomato halves filled with spinach and topped with mild, melted Manchego cheese. In the center of the plate is a pile of ideal garlic mash (also available as a tapa), with just a touch of garlic, a waft of Manchego cheese for body, and the satiny unctuousness of red potatoes.
There were a few failures among our choices — not horrible, but minimally satisfactory. Their problem-in-common: They all tasted as if they’d been cooked ahead and reheated to order, not to their benefit. The “house special tortilla española” (a frittata of eggs, potatoes, and onions, reportedly with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes) tasted as if artichoke hearts may have waltzed into the recipe, while the tomatoes and goat cheese sneaked out the back door. This is a dish that can happily be served at room temperature, but when reheated, it turns into something like bad Jewish-holiday potato kugel. (“Look! Aunt Irma brought her special kugel.” “Oh, goody gumdrops, Aunt Irma’s kugel!” whisper the kids at their separate kiddie table, giggling and pantomiming barfs.)
Both the beef and the seafood empanadas seem to suffer severely from reheating. Empanadas of all Iberian countries and former colonies come in two basic styles: empanadas de horno (“from the oven”), typically filled with meat or spinach and baked in a pielike crust, or empanadas de hoja (“leaf pastry,” aka puff pastry), usually deep-fried with a light filling, like creamed seafood or cheese. Both versions can be fully assembled and refrigerated (or frozen) in advance but are best served freshly cooked. Here the beef was de horno and the seafood was de hoja, but both fillings had seriously lost their sparkle somewhere along the way. Want to taste great de horno? Try beef empanadas at Puerto La Boca in Little Italy, or spinach-stuffed at Tango in Chula Vista. Fabulous de hoja? Chilean-style cheese empanadas can be found at Berta’s in Old Town — still one of San Diego’s top dishes to my tastes.
Chicken croquetas are a sinful temptation at numerous other Iberian restaurants, with crackly-crisp outsides and gooey, creamy insides (e.g., the killer version at Costa Brava in P.B., or the Brazilian spin-off at Brazil by the Bay). At Sevilla, after trying them several times over the years, I have to conclude that here they have never been happy or good — merely heavy and dull, like bad frozen food heated in the nuker. Then, too, Sevilla’s standard paella Valenciana is available in a tapa-size portion, but having tried it eight years ago, I didn’t want a rematch: It, too, is evidently made ahead, in massive quantities, for the nightclub patrons in the bowels of the building. (For a good, made-to-order paella Valenciana, once again, Costa Brava is your best choice, especially at Sunday brunch.)
For an entrée to share, we chose paella negra, a Catalan favorite colored Goth-black by squid ink. (If you go there intending to order it, wear black — even a stray drop stains.) Yoda had difficulty adjusting to its undeniably “fishy” squid flavor but eventually came around. (The doggie-bag next evening confirmed its unassailable freshness.) The seafood topping included shrimp, squid, and Manila clams — one clam needing better cleaning, as it unleashed a light flood of sand into the nearby rice. But once you get used to its Addams Family values (and color), this is a rewarding dish for seafood lovers.
My friends wanted dessert and ordered Chocolate Crema Catalina, a baked chocolate mousse loaded with chocolate chips. I hated it, but then, I’m a fats-head and not much of a sweets-heart. There was nothing wrong with it, except that I couldn’t stand to look at it after so much food. My espresso was decent.
The Gaslamp Cafe Sevilla is the flagship of a local mini-chain, and for better or worse, the business model is chain-y, with high customer volume, entertainment, and a “feed the masses” mindset that seems more overt than when I first ate here eight years ago. Then, when I was coming directly from relishing the three superb tapas bars in San Francisco, I found Sevilla surprisingly enjoyable, much better than expected, compared to the normal run of restaurants here at the time. Now, I think its quality has devolved a bit — they’re probably suffering from the current
economy, like all the other restaurants in the country and county. Yet the affordable tapas here, even if inconsistent, remain a flavorful gamble at a bargain price — and the best of them merit a hearty “¡Olé!” As Ahnold said, “I’ll be back.”
*** (Good to Very Good)
555 Fourth Avenue, Gaslamp Quarter, 619-233-5979, cafesevilla.com
HOURS: 5:00 p.m.–1:00 a.m. daily.
PRICES: Small tapas, $4–$9; “Signature” tapas (medium-sized), $7.50–$23; soups and salads, $6–$14; tapa tasting platters, $14–$25; brochettes, paellas, entrées, $12–$28 (most about $15); desserts about $5.50. Sampler platters half off Wednesdays, brochettes $10 Sundays; paellas $13 Mondays.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Spanish tapas and entrées. Full bar with inexpensive tropical cocktails; wine list includes many fine, affordable international choices and several varieties of sangria.
PICK HITS: Bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with Cabrales bleu cheese; cold marinated tapas sampler platter; marinated green mussels; lamb chops Madrileños, paella negra (squid-ink seafood paella). Earlier-visit favorites: lobster and seafood bisque; fried calamari (plus an order of alioli and tomato dipping sauce with Kalamata olive bread); Manchego cheese–mashed potatoes with garlic; roasted pork tenderloin entrée with honey-port sauce. Other likely good bets when available: Black mussels with lobster and saffron-cream sauce; seafood crèpes; shrimp azafran, Basque rabbit.
NEED TO KNOW: About a dozen lacto-ovo-vegetarian tapas and soups, including four or more vegan choices (plus several additional vegan items from combo platters, all available separately); one vegan paella entrée. Tapas bar is noisy and hectic; for a quieter, romantic atmosphere, reserve a few nights ahead, requesting the dining room. Nightclub downstairs (not wheelchair accessible) with salsa lessons, etc., some food available. Valet parking available; cheap parking two blocks east at Park It On Market.